Seward Ocean Excursions covered my boat tour of Kenai Fjords in exchange for an honest review, but scout’s honor! All opinions are my own.
About 3 miles out from Exit Glacier is where the brown signposts begin. Each sign bears a four-digit number: the year when the glacier last reached that point. You’ll travel past 200 years of recession in Kenai Fjords National Park mile-by-mile until you get to the point where the glacier currently ends. Come back next year, and the glacier will have receded further.
There are few things that better represent climate change than glaciers. Glacial retreat is a clear sign that our planet is getting warmer. But until you see something as monstrous, as massive, as resilient as a glacier, melting away chunk-by-chunk? It can be hard to really understand just how quickly our earth is changing.
On the park map, Kenai Fjords National Park looks small. There’s just one road that runs from where the park begins to Exit Glacier. But if you’re willing to take to the water on a boat or kayak? You’ll find there are plenty of other things to do in Kenai Fjords National Park. And it’s a pretty damn beautiful place to explore.
Ready for a little adventure? Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Kenai Fjords including how to get there, things to do, hiking trails, best tour operators, and more.
We visited on an extremely smokey day! When you plan your trip, you’re likely to have better views than how it looks in our photos!
At a Glance
Kenai Fjords National Park is a seriously beautiful park on the Kenai Peninsula outside of Seward, Alaska. The Harding Ice Field covers more than half of Kenai Fjords National Park and is source to more than 38 glaciers. There is a mountain range that lies mysteriously beneath 90m of ice, but there are also jagged peaks you can see that climb up from the water and form the picturesque fjords that the park is named for.
As I mentioned above, there is only one small part of the park accessible by road (Exit Glacier) but deeper parts of the park are accessible by plane or on a boat tour.
Entrance to Kenai Fjords National Park is free for vehicles, motorcycles, and individuals. You’ll have to pay separately if you book a guided tour or hire a boat into the park. If you have other National Park travel planned, you might still consider buying the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass ($79) which includes access to all US National Parks and Federal Lands.
When to visit: While the park is open year-round, the road is closed for winter and most of the spring. The best time to visit Kenai Fjords National Park is between May and October when the roads are open and temperatures are moderate.
Reasons to Dig Kenai Fjords National Park
You’re in the Last Frontier
I’m sure it’s extremely lame to call Alaska “The Last Frontier”. But at Kenai Fjords, you’ll feel like you’re on the edge of the ocean, high above the equator, dwelling in a place that has required incredible adaptation to survive in. It’s this harshness that makes it so beautiful. It feels rugged and adventurous and unregulated in a way that few places in the world still are.
Kayak, Boat & Flightseeing Tours
Kenai Fjords is really one of the most unusual parks I’ve ever been to. Besides the road to Exit Glacier, you’ll need a watercraft or aircraft to access most of the park. We opted for a boat tour, but here’s an overview of all the ways to get around.
Kayaking: Kayaking in Kenai Fjords is best saved for experienced paddlers; the waters can be rough and there’s little protection from the elements. But the payoffs of traveling by kayak are HUGE. Without a noisy boat and a large vessel, you’ll get to see wildlife and parts of the park everyone else misses.
From Seward, you can paddle to parts of Resurrection Bay, but you’ll need a water taxi or boat if you want to kayak inside Kenai Fjords National Park (Aialik Bay, Northwestern Lagoon, and Bear Glacier Lagoon). And if you want to stay overnight, there are landings in the coastal backcountry where you can camp, and they’re only accessible by kayak or water taxi.
Boat Tours: Boat tours are the best way to see a lot of the park in a short amount of time. Most boats depart from the harbor in Seward. The standard itinerary travels through Resurrection Bay, while longer tours include Kenai Fjords National Park and the tidewaters of Aialik Bay where you can see calving glaciers and floating ice.
We took a boat tour with Seward Ocean Excursions. Our guide – Bixler McClure – is one hell of a sea captain and a fifth-generation Sewardite. Our tour focused on notable glaciers, birdwatching, and other wildlife spotting, but small operators like this one tend to be super flexible and can build an itinerary around your interests.
There is a huge range of companies offering boat tours, and some are much better than others. During the summer, park rangers offer narration on the Major Marine tours, but we really loved the experience of being on a small boat and with a local operator.
Check out boat tours from our pals at Seward Ocean Excursions
Flightseeing: If you thought fjords were something to look at from eye level, you’ll be seriously into by what they look like from above. Flightseeing tours are sightseeing tours that you take in a helicopter or fixed-wing plane (duh.). Planes aren’t permitted to land in Kenai Fjords, but you’ll fly over the Harding Icefield and have the chance to spot glaciers and wildlife from above, which is pretty damn cool if you ask me.
Ready to go flightseeing? Check out AA Seward Air Tours
Inside Kenai Fjords National Park, you’ll find bears, whales, and otters amongst other creatures. That’s why wildlife spotting is one of the best things to do in Kenai Fjords, without a doubt.
Just off the Gulf of Alaska, the area is on the migratory path of gray, humpback, minke, and fin whales. Most tours will know the best places to spot whales and take you there for some whale watching as part of your itinerary.
Other marine mammals in Kenai Fjords include orcas, harbor porpoises, sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions. You also might spot puffins and sea birds on the water, and land born bears and mountain goats if you’re lucky.
Hiking & Backpacking in Kenai Fjords National Park
Hiking in Kenai Fjords National Park is super limited. While backcountry hiking is possible, it’s pretty tough wilderness. I personally didn’t go, and it’s not something I’d recommend to anyone without significant experience. That leaves only a couple of hikes that depart from Exit Glacier Nature Center. The trail to Exit Glacier is a super easy out-and-back trail (you can read about it here) which just leaves the more rigorous Harding Icefield Trail.
The Harding Icefield Trail
The Harding Icefield Trail is a 13 km out-and-back hike accessible from Exit Glacier. You’ll start out in a forest, ascend to a meadow, and finish well above treeline with panoramic views of the icefield below. The hike is strenuous gaining about 1,100 m in elevation, but views from the top are worth it.
Accommodation in Kenai Fjords National Park
Exit Glacier Campground | The 12-site campground at Exit Glacier is the only camping in Kenai Fjords. The campgrounds have pit toilets and central food storage/cooking area because cooking at the sites is prohibited. Sites are bookable on a walk-up basis and there are no advance reservations or camping fees.
Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge | Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge is the only wilderness lodge in Kenai Fjords build in a native-owned wildlife sanctuary. There are 16 cabins and the lodge is only accessible by a boat taxi that departs from the Seward Harbor. The high premium for cabins is justified by the remote location rather than the cabins themselves. Rooms from $915 per night.
Hotels in Seward | The Kenai Fjords Visitor’s Center is located in the small town of Seward. There are a handful of decent hotels in the town on the harbor. And there are plenty of dive bars and seafood restaurants for you to enjoy during your stay. Doubles from $129.